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This England

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

Shakespeare’s play, The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, details the final years of King Richard II who ruled England from 1377 to 1399. (He was deposed in 1399 and died the following year.) The play opens with a dispute between the King’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and Thomas de Mowbray, First Duke of Norfolk, over the murder of Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. However, John of Gaunt – Henry Bolingbroke’s father and the brother of the murdered Duke of Gloucester – believes the King to be behind the murder.

To cut a very long story short, John of Gaunt laments Richard II’s management of England – a “dear land” now “leased out… like to a tenement or pelting farm” – and (rightly) predicts the King’s downfall. His deathbed speech in Act II Scene I may ring a few bells:
This royall Throne of Kings, this sceptred Isle,
This earth of Maiesty, this seate of Mars,
This other Eden, demy paradise,
This Fortresse built by Nature for her selfe,
Against infection, and the hand of warre:
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone, set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a Moate defensive to a house,
Against the envy of lesse happier Lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this Realme, this England…
While it may be true that (according to the poet John Donne) “No man is an island, Entire of itself”, here, John of Gaunt attributes England’s strength to its geographical isolation – a “precious stone, set in the silver sea” which, like a moat around a fortress, defends against “the hand of warre”. Today, we strive for peace but in the 14th century John of Gaunt hailed his England as the “seat of Mars” – home to the Roman god of war.